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Getting to Know California’s Best Unsung Wine Regions

Although it only takes about a half hour to drive from end to end, the 15-mile span of the Arroyo Grande and Edna Valleys reveals all that should be championed and much of what remains challenging for California’s lesser-known wine regions.

The valleys, just miles from the chilly Pacific Ocean in southern San Luis Obispo County, are dramatically pockmarked with steep volcanic peaks of jaw-dropping beauty. They’re full of wildly varying soils, and are home to pioneering and iconoclastic ­vintners.

There’s tradition in the rows of Chardonnay that have thrived since the 1970s. However, much attention is also paid to Pinot Noirs that can be lithe or powerful, as well as cool-climate Rhône varietal wines and aromatic whites like Albariño and Grüner Veltliner. The wines are always solid and often superb, even those in the sub-$20 range.

Yet, despite these successes, the Arroyo Grande and Edna Valleys struggle for recognition beyond the Central Coast. As in much of California, planting new vineyards here is tough because water is scarce. Further, the land most suitable for grape growing can often be more lucratively developed as small ranches.

A handful of big wine companies dominate this compact region, making it difficult for emerging winemakers to acquire fruit and establish brands that could win acclaim, wind up on wine lists and ring the bell louder for these two appellations.

But, thanks to the re-energized efforts of the SLO Wine Country group, visitors are on the rise, and that number will grow if the push to create a more cohesive SLO Coast appellation succeeds. Now’s the time to beat the rush. Here’s a guide for a south-to-north exploration of the Arroyo Grande and Edna Valleys.

A.G. for life

Laetitia Vineyard was founded in 1982 as Maison Deutz, a sparkling wine house. That was eight years before the Arroyo Grande Valley appellation was created.

Now, under owner Selim Zilkha, the father-son team of Dave and Eric Hickey makes more than 35,000 cases of bubbly and still wines annually. Dave started as the property’s electrician in 1985. Three years later, Eric, then 16, began work for his dad.

“Even from the beginning, the wines have always been very subtle.” —Bill Greenough

The views from Laetitia Vineyard reach from San Luis Bay to the Santa Maria River. The coastal influence on the vineyard is clear, but to Lino Bozzano, who manages the property’s 505 acres of grapes—80 percent of which are devoted to Pinot Noir—the real story is under his boots.

“There is a true diversity of polarizing soils, from pure chalk to volcanic rocks, and everything in between,” says Bozzano, noting the blue-fruit flavors come from volcanics, while cola and spice flavors are connected to clay. He believes that the dirt and the weather are intertwined.

“Soils are the product of millions of years of climate patterns, so soils and climate are really one and the same,” he says.

Owner Brian Talley (right) and Winemaker Eric Johnson of Talley Vineyards
Owner Brian Talley (right) and Winemaker Eric Johnson of Talley Vineyards / Photo by Michael Housewright

Just over the rolling hills sits Talley Vineyards. Proprietor Brian Talley is so proud of his family’s Arroyo Grande farming history that he’s published a book about it: Our California Table.

His grandfather, Oliver, first planted vegetables in the Arroyo Grande Valley in 1948, and by the early 1980s, his dad, Don, decided to grow wine grapes on the surrounding hillsides. “My dad was a real visionary,” says Brian.

Talley made its first wine in 1986, and quality improved dramatically in 2001, when Brian hired Napa veteran Tom Prentice to update operations. Today, Winemaker Eric Johnson makes some of California’s best Chardonnays, and his Pinot Noirs aren’t too shabby, either.

The wines are reflective of the small vineyards, including Oliver’s, Rosemary’s and Rincon, which sit in various corners of the appellation and usually overlook a Talley Farms vegetable patch.

Brian and his wife, Johnine, explain all of this over homemade coq au vin at their home, one of 56 ranchettes that the Talleys developed on 4,000 otherwise preserved acres.

Also here to enjoy dinner on this night are Patrick and Heather Muran. Patrick serves as winemaker at Paso Robles’ Niner Estate, which also owns Jespersen Ranch in the Edna Valley, while Heather, as executive director, is reinvigorating the SLO Wine Country organization.

After dinner, Brian rushes off to grab a few older bottles from his cellar and later shows off a draft of his forthcoming book. He spends the rest of the night beaming from ear to ear, celebrating both the longevity of his wines and his family’s impressive arc.

Deeper in the valley lies another family-run operation, Saucelito Canyon, whose Zinfandel vines were planted in 1880. Bill Greenough bought the dilapidated property in 1974 and has made nuanced old-vine Zins ever since. Today, he does it with the help of his winemaking son, Tom, and daughter, Margaret, a doctor.

“A lot of people don’t make it like we do,” says Bill as he walks amid his gnarled vines, the winery that he built himself and an old cave cellar that holds bottles that go back to his inaugural 1982 vintage. “We want to make it more complex, and this vineyard doesn’t produce big, fruity wines. Even from the beginning, the wines have always been very subtle.”

Alternative Adventurers

John Alban pioneered Rhône varieties at Alban Vineyards in the Edna Valley
John Alban pioneered Rhône varieties at Alban Vineyards in the Edna Valley / Photo by Michael Housewright

The southern border of the Edna Valley appellation cuts through the geologically tumultuous land of John Alban, whose focus on Rhône varietal wines makes him an outlier in a region dominated by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

While he studied maps of Europe’s many regions with his wine-loving father decades ago, Alban, a native Southern Californian, was frustrated that his home state was making only Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Why does Europe make wine from 500 grape varieties, and California only makes two?” wondered the younger Alban. “There’s gotta be an opportunity here.”Further research on Rhône vintages gave hope.

“What distinguishes great vintages is that they are unusually warm at the end of the year,” says Alban, who established a successful nursery that helped launch his namesake brand in 1989. “California always gets warm at the end of the year. We even have names for it: Indian summer, sundowners, the Santa Anas. That’s why Rhône varietals have done so well here. Their success is almost incontestable.”

Despite alternative variety adventurers, Edna Valley’s strengths remain Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Just up the road from Alban is Slide Hill Vineyard, which was first planted in 2005 as Sawyer-Lindquist Vineyard by Bob Lindquist (of Qupe) and his wife, Louisa Sawyer-Lindquist. Louisa, originally from New York, was also confused by California’s lack of grape diversity.

“When I started coming to California, I wondered, with all the Spanish names and places that look like Spain, why were there no Spanish varieties?” she says.

Louisa started the Verdad label with Tempranillo and Albariño from this property. The biodynamic vineyard, purchased and renamed by Brook Williams in 2013, also grows Grenache, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Marsanne in a unique calcareous soil called Obispo mudstone. Says Sawyer-Lindquist, “I call it poor man’s limestone.”

Despite these alternative variety adventurers, Edna Valley’s strengths remain Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which thrive in what many believe to be California’s coolest appellation. That’s what Lisa and David Platt decided to plant in 2009 on their small 10-acre property, one of the few new vineyards in the region.

Lisa and David Platt at Chêne Vineyards / Photo by Michael Housewright
Lisa and David Platt at Chêne Vineyards / Photo by Michael Housewright

“We didn’t buy it with the intent of building a vineyard,” says Lisa. At the time, the couple, who are commercial pilots, sought a rural place to raise their kids and horses. But with more than four soil types on their hill, “it turned out to be quite a good piece of dirt for wine,” says David. Chêne Winery’s first vintages hit the shelves last year.

After farming conventionally initially, they’ve shifted to organic methods. “I can see 20 birds here right now that weren’t here before,” says Lisa. But with that, there are constant ups and downs. “It’s been mercurial for sure,” she says. “You have to make every decision every day.”

Within a 10-minute drive are a number of other wineries that possess a hands-on spirit similar to Chêne.

Kynsi is the label created by Gwen and Don Othman. Don leveraged his engineering background to break into the wine business in the 1980s. He used his talents to address the many infrastructure needs of wineries in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

“It was a fledgling industry, and they all wanted stainless steel,” says Don, who crafted tanks, fittings, pipes and the like. But he struck real gold when he created the Bulldog Pup, which uses inert gas to gently transfer wine “without agitation or oxidation.” The device is sold to vintners, brewers and distillers throughout the world.

By the mid-1990s, the Othmans were winemakers themselves. They struck up a unique partnership with the Talley family and Stephen Dooley, who makes Stephen Ross wine from a variety of Edna Valley vineyards in his San Luis Obispo facility.

Gwen Othman of Kynsi Winery / Photo by Michael Housewright
Gwen Othman of Kynsi Winery / Photo by Michael Housewright

The partners designed and share the Stone Corral Vineyard, which surrounds the Kynsi winery, a former dairy barn. As he overlooks the vineyard from a picnic table that sits beneath old oaks, Don says, “This, in our opinion, is ground zero for Pinot Noir.”

Jean-Pierre Wolff, a nuclear engineer from Belgium, found the Edna Valley after a statewide search. “I made a matrix,” he says. He sought a cool coastal spot near a college town that had “up-and-coming potential.” Wolff found MacGregor Vineyard, which had been planted with 125 acres of Chardonnay in 1976 and was used by iconic producers like Mount Eden.

In 1999, Wolff purchased the property, built a winery and named it Wolff Vineyards. His wife and two sons work with him. He kept about 55 acres of the old Chardonnay, but replanted other parts to Pinot Noir, Teroldego, Syrah, Riesling and Petite Sirah, one of the few cool climate versions on the market. The soils are crazy here, too, attracting Cal Poly students who come frequently to study them.

“When people say, ‘What soil do you have?’ I say, ‘What do you like?’ ” Wolff says.

Claiborne Thompson was a professor of Norse mythology at the University of Michigan when he discovered Edna Valley during an escape from a conference at UCLA in 1981. He and his wife, Fredericka Churchill Thompson, decided to ditch academia to produce Riesling and Gewürztraminer in the dry Alsatian style under the name Claiborne & Churchill.

“There are lot of big players, and it’s a small valley.” —Ryan Deovlet

They’ve since expanded their offerings under Winemaker Coby Parker-Garcia, who’s tapping the nearby Twin Creek and Green Gate Vineyards for Pinot Noir, which now accounts for more than half of the winery’s production.

Parker-Garcia also runs his own label, El Lugar, one of the few younger folks able to buy fruit from established vineyards in the Edna Valley.

“There’s just not a lot of opportunity,” says Parker-Garcia. “I basically begged my way in.”

Exploring that realm is what led vintner Ryan Deovlet (who makes his own wine, as well as Refugio Ranch, from the Santa Ynez Valley) to his latest consulting gig for Biddle Ranch, the Edna Valley’s newest name.

“There are a lot of big players, and it’s a small valley,” says Deovlet, who makes his wine on the urban outskirts of San Luis Obispo right at the fringe of the Edna Valley. “I’m still trying to find the tenderloins.”

The team from Niven Family Wine Estates, from left to right: VP of Winemaking Christian Roguenant, VP of Operations Michael Niven Blaney, Director of Winegrowing Scott Williams and VP of Sales & Marketing John Niven / Photo by Michael Housewright
The team from Niven Family Wine Estates, from left to right: VP of Winemaking Christian Roguenant, VP of Operations Michael Niven Blaney, Director of Winegrowing Scott Williams and VP of Sales & Marketing John Niven / Photo by Michael Housewright

Pioneers Bet on White

The Edna Valley’s first two commercial vineyards were Chamisal, founded by Southern California restaurateur Norman Goss, and Paragon, launched by grocery-chain owner Jack Niven; both were planted in 1973. Brand names and ownership of both properties have shifted over the years. Most notable is the Edna Valley Vineyard, which the Nivens created as a partnership to use Paragon grapes in 1981, but sold to Gallo in 2011. Chamisal is owned by the Crimson Wine Group, which also controls Pine Ridge in Napa and Archery Summit in Oregon.

Both vineyards produce a variety of white, pink and red wines, and the owners of each are bullish on the potential for white wines. For Chamisal, that means Chardonnay.

“Most important is what grape grows best,” says Winemaker Fintan du Fresne, who has hosted region-wide tastings to identify typicity. “While we can make good Pinot Noir, we can make much better Chardonnay.”

Chardonnay is a strong part of the Nivens’ Baileyana portfolio, but there’s also excitement around aromatic whites like Grüner Veltliner, Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

“We’re passionate about what white wines can do here,” says John Niven, who puts those wines into his affordably priced brands Tangent and Zocker (“gambler” in German), together with Baileyana, all part of Niven Family Wine Estates. “Fresh and pure whites are what people are gravitating toward.”

Center of Effort, a major investment by the former CEO of Raytheon / Photo by Michael Housewright
Center of Effort, a major investment by the former CEO of Raytheon / Photo by Michael Housewright

Pinot Noir Resurgence

As these pioneer properties swing white, there’s a well-funded push toward reds, too. That includes Center of Effort, which occupies the former Corbett Canyon facility. It’s co-owned by Bill Swanson, a local, who became CEO of Raytheon, and Tolosa Winery, which Robin Baggett (of Alpha Omega in Napa) co-founded in 1998.

Jim Kress of Tolosa / Photo by Michael Housewright
Jim Kress of Tolosa / Photo by Michael Housewright

Two years ago, Baggett brought in Winemaker Jim Kress to shake things up at Tolosa. Baggett provided all of the financial resources required for the job.

“I’m accused of being ‘No Budget Jim’, ” says Kress, whose glee over his new gadgets is infectious, particularly the optical sorter. “That’s a sweet deal,” he says. “It basically turns the grapes into caviar.”

Imagine an adult playground, with bocce, a putting green, outdoor smoker and ­­­­­­wood-fired oven.

He’s reshaped the brand into four tiers, from a wholesale distribution line to a $100 bottling called Primera, along with a series of wines from top vineyards in Sonoma and Santa Barbara. “The purpose is showing Edna Valley against these other highly acclaimed Pinot Noir regions,” he says.

Tolosa's modern tasting room / Photo by Michael Housewright
Tolosa’s modern tasting room / Photo by Michael Housewright

They compete quite strongly.

At Center of Effort, Swanson hired Central Coast veteran Nathan Carlson, a Minnesota native, to make his Pinot dreams come true. Swanson has planted more grapes and developed a sleek, nautical-nodding brand that he envisioned late one night in Helsinki. He also overhauled the adjacent property into an adult playground, complete with bocce, a putting green, outdoor smoker, wood-fired oven and tricked-out man cave. He’s getting permits to host wine club parties there and other events.

“Whatever I do, I do it right,” says Swanson. “We have the opportunity to do something a little different here. I’d like to set the high end in the Edna Valley.”

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